How to Grow Strawberries
There are few flavours to rival that of a sun-warmed strawberry, freshly picked from the garden – certainly not the chilled specimens (grown for their uniformity and shelf life) that make up the majority of strawberries sold by supermarkets. Although the commercial varieties have improved enormously, they still have a long way to go to give a good garden-grown strawberry a run for its money.
Strawberry growing can be as easy or as complicated as you choose to make it. Read the gardening books and they might put you off before you begin. Basically, there are two types of strawberry – the summer fruiting, which crop intensively around Wimbledon time, and the perpetuals which produce two or three flushes of fruit right through to autumn. I grow both – the summer fruiting for the pleasure of eating strawberries every day at the height of the season, and the perpetuals for a steady, if not daily, supply.
The Best Strawberry Plants
My top recommendations are the summer fruiting Gariguette, an old French variety with superb flavour and the perpetual Mara de Bois strawberry which is a cross with the alpine strawberry, but as long as you choose a variety where flavour is highlighted you are sure to be delighted by your strawberries.
When to Plant Strawberries
Traditionally, strawberry runners (bare root plants) are sent out between October and April. Planted in October, they will fruit the following summer, but if you plant them in spring you really should pick off the flowers and not allow them to fruit the first year. This is difficult advice to follow, but you will get much larger fruit and a better crop the following year. The best way to resist the temptation is to buy some cold-stored runners between April and July, either online or from one of the major flower shows, where they are usually available. These plant will fruit within 90 days if planted in May and 60 days when planted between May and July.
Don’t waste your money buying garden-centre plants, the choice will be limited and often uninspiring. Go to a specialist grower like Ken Muir or welsh fruit stocks if you prefer to buy organic plants.
The easiest way to grow strawberries is in a raised bed, grow bag or in containers. This means that you can provide them with the conditions and the soil they like (sunny and sheltered/free draining and fertile). It will also be far easier to protect them from birds, slugs and woodlice that like strawberries just as much as we do. I’ve never had much luck with strawberry planters, despite their being made specifically for the purpose; they are fiddly to plant and it is difficult to get the watering right.
Plant your runners with the crown (the cluster of buds at the base of the leaves) just resting on the soil and keep them well-watered (but not waterlogged – they hate it) until they are established. Once the fruit starts to form, feed them weekly with aliquid tomato feed, water regularly and remove any long shoots (runners in the making) until the plants have fruited. After that you can allow the strongest runner to root as a replacement plant if you want. Otherwise, cut the old leaves back close to ground level to allow new foliage to grow, top dress with compost and discard any plants that look sickly. Strawberry plantsgenerally crop well for 3 to 4 years after which they should be replaced with new plants which must be planted in fresh soil. Ideally, plant a few new plants each year so that you establish a succession.